Academic journal article Africa

The Dynamics of Witchcraft and Indigenous Shrines among the Akan

Academic journal article Africa

The Dynamics of Witchcraft and Indigenous Shrines among the Akan

Article excerpt

Conspicuous consumption of Western goods is one way in which contradictory ideas associated with modern identities are constructed and are expressive of rupture and reflexivity in modern Ghana. It is a way in which local Akan consumers express their participation in `modernity' as a distancing from the past. If `modernity' is constituted by the hostility towards traditionalism associated with an `alterity of non-development' (Rowlands, 1995: 37), then witchcraft is perceived as a `traditional' obstacle to new types of accumulation (Fisiy and Geschiere, 1996). Post-colonial African states defined witchcraft as a superstitious vestige of a rejected past and tried to ban it, but it is precisely in that apparently modern arena--the post-colonial state--that witchcraft discourses have come to be lodged, incorporating new images and objects and providing one way of defining modernity through the `local' consumption of global commodities (Fisiy and Geschiere, 1991; Shaw, 1997).

Far from disappearing in the face of post-colonial developments, witchcraft accusations may provide the medium for exploring a critique of new forms of economic individualism. This may especially be the case where the `local' economy engages with a `global' world market. Taussig has argued, it will be recalled, that discourses of evil among Colombian mine workers contain a critique of the capitalist economy, in which people risk their lives for money. Following Taussig (1980, 1987), others have claimed that `global' commodities may be perceived as embodying evil and danger among `local' consumers in contemporary Africa (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993; Meyer, 1995b). Geschiere and Fisiy (1994) show how, in rural Cameroon, witchcraft accusations construct immoral behaviours associated with `global' material production.

The dialectic between the modern and tradition continues to be expressed in different ways, then, even at a local level. In many instances witchcraft accusations construct the anonymity of tensions as embodied in the social fabric of society and the state (Bayart, 1993). In Cameroon sorcery is believed to be rife and is thought of as a `popular mode of political action in a country dominated by the hegemonic project of state building' (Fisiy and Geschiere, 199e: 198). Unequal economic development of urban areas has generated accusations of Sorcery against the wealthy, reflecting tension between rural villagers and urban elites, especially those employed in the state civil service. For this reason, urban dwellers feel compelled to support young relatives from the village who come to town, and succumb to an ideology requiring them to redistribute a sizeable part of their wealth to the village and use their positions in the civil service to ensure that their villages are provided with schools, roads and public amenities (Rowlands and Warnier, 1988; Rowlands, 1995).

In Ghana the rise of a new business class is associated with the decline of state power over the consumption and distribution of wealth, now increasingly taken over by entrepreneurs. In the nineteenth century the state was understood to be the primary means of accumulating wealth. Wealth was always one of the pillars of social order in nineteenth-century Asante, with consumption and investment underpinning a wealthy entrepreneurial class and an official class (Wilks, 1979). By the 1930s a successful group of businessmen had broken the Asante state's fiscal control over the disposition of wealth, and by the late 1960s they were the established core of Ghanaian society (Arhin, 1976, 1979; McCaskie, 1983). The restraint on hedonistic consumption which characterised an earlier era disappeared. Most of the new business class displayed their wealth in a desire to demonstrate their status as consumers, since consumption was historically the mark of big men (McCaskie, 1983, 1986).

Economic individualism posed both a threat to existing relations and an opportunity to those individuals who took advantage of a changing economic climate in order to invest in new business ventures (see McCaskie, 1981). …

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